Finley: Returning citizens can help fill the skilled trades gap
Mackinac Island –
The muddy Detroit lot where McKinley Brown is learning to operate an excavator is a long way from the porch of the Grand Hotel, where the region’s business leaders are gathered this week.
But Brown wants those business bosses to know he’s ready to put his past behind him and go to work — if they’ll have him.
“I want stability in my life, and for my kids’ lives,” says Brown, a recent prison parolee who is learning blight remediation skills at the Detroit Training Center.
The center, under contract with the city of Detroit, is readying the recently and soon-to-be released prisoners for careers other than crime. Brown, 32, of Detroit, believes a decent job will keep him from returning to prison for a fourth time and allow him to support his two daughters.
He started training while finishing a nine-month sentence for fleeing from police. The previous two times he was released from prison, including a two-year term for a felony firearm conviction, he was ill-prepared to rejoin society.
This time, he expects to land a job with a contractor tearing down blighted buildings in Detroit.
“I have a skill now,” says Brown, who was paroled in March. “I can do this work.”
That’s the message Heidi Washington is bringing to Mackinac Island this week. The director of the Michigan Corrections Department is making her first trip to the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference to convince employers to give returning citizens like Brown a chance.
“Mackinac is an opportunity to tell our story to a really important audience,” says Washington.
That story is that ex-convicts can help fill Michigan’s skilled trades gap.
Gov. Rick Snyder is championing skills training for prisoners and parolees as a way to cut down on recidivism and boost the state’s workforce, while trimming the $2 billion annual Corrections budget.
The first classes of trained convicts are now ready to go to work, and Washington wants employers to know they make capable and loyal employees.
“Returning citizens are coming home to your communities,” she says. “You have thousands of skilled jobs to fill. They can fill them.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan contracted with the Detroit Training Center to specifically prepare returning citizens to work for demolition companies handling the city’s anti-blight efforts.
These are good jobs, paying in the $15 to $20 an hour range. And they’re also hard jobs, so the pool of prospective employees is not large.
But the work suits Matthew Hernandez, 34, who was released in December after serving 18 months in Jackson Prison for an unarmed robbery.
He had some construction experience before his conviction, so when he got out he applied with building firms. He did fine in the job interviews, he says, until the background question came up.
“Then it was, “Uh, we’ll call you,’ ” Hernandez says.
He finished his training last week and expected to start work right away with a demolition firm.
“This is huge for me,” he says. “When I went to prison, I gave up on being successful again. This program gave me hope.”
Malia Salaam of the One Stop program, which works with the state and the city to coordinate reentry efforts, says the average returning citizen receiving training has spent 10 to 15 years behind bars, and most had no idea what they would do on their release.
“A job is what they want most,” she says. “That represents opportunity.”
She’s found employers in the construction trades receptive. And they should be. Those who hire returning citizens are eligible for a $2,400 payroll tax credit from the federal government and a $5,000 wage reimbursement from the state.
Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, say feedback from employers who have hired the ex-cons is positive.
“They find they’re getting good results,” he says.
That’s been the experience of Cindy Pasky, CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions in Detroit, who is actively recruiting parolees.
“They’re some of the best employees we have,” Pasky said during a recent Detroit Economic Club forum I moderated. “We’ve been able to convince our customers to let us bring returning citizens into their work environment. It’s talent that is loyal and appreciative. You’ve given them an opportunity to change their status and their lives, and more importantly, their family’s station in life.”
At this point, only a small fraction of the 7,000 to 8,000 inmates who are released each year in Michigan are in the training programs.
At Ionia, the Corrections Department is training inmates as mechanics, hi-lo drivers, welders, plumbers and electricians. A second program will open soon in Jackson to teach masonry, robotics and 3-D printing.
Washington says the department hopes to scale up, so more convicts walk out of prison with a clear vision for the future.
“We want them to have job offers before they leave prison,” she says. “It’s a vulnerable time the day they get out. We don’t like them to have idle time. We want them to immediately start working.”
That, of course, depends on the willingness of employers to hire them. Washington is urging executives this week to visit the prison training programs and talk to those who are about to return to society.
“Historically, we haven’t had a lot of people come inside the prisons,” she says. “We’ve been content to know the inmates are inside and we’re outside. Coming inside and seeing what these returning citizens have to offer takes away the apprehension.”
Hiring returning citizens is a classic two-fer. Employers get the skilled workers who are in such high demand, and the parolees get the opportunity they need to prevent a return trip to prison.